Sheriff’s candidates question CCSO spending
In recent weeks, several large billboards featuring photos of Sheriff Levon Allen have popped up at strategic intersections around Clayton County. The billboards urge people to apply to work at the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department. Critics are questioning whether the billboards, along with advertisements on movie screens at Southlake AMC 24, constitute taxpayer-funded campaigning.
The Clayton Crescent used data from an Open Records Request to build this map. It shows where CCSO bought billboards with Allen’s campaign website photo between November 8, 2022 and February 6, 2023. The county paid $19,707.50 for those billboards:
That price tag doesn’t count another $10,430 in taxpayer dollars spent on recruiting ads that have been running before moviegoers since Thanksgiving Week at Southlake AMC 24 in Morrow. That campaign, which began on November 21, 2022, ends Sunday.
Splashy advertising for new recruits is common practice in law enforcement. Recruitment and retention are ongoing problems for law enforcement agencies across the country. Some ascribe it to the “Ferguson effect,” which is a claim that people no longer wanted to become police officers after the riots in Ferguson, MO over Michael Brown’s fatal shooting by a police officer.
Other local law enforcement agencies also face difficulties recruiting qualified officers. Agencies in metro Atlanta or surrounding counties might advertise along I-75, touting take-home vehicles and tuition payments. Forest Park’s former police chief, Nathaniel Clark, put his face and name on billboards and had at least two vehicles wrapped with graphics for recruiting. While Clark was not sure of the exact amount he spent on those recruiting billboards and wraps, he told The Clayton Crescent it was probably under $10,000.
It is a fact that the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department is short-staffed and has been since former Sheriff Victor Hill’s administration. Over the years, more than a few CCSO deputies and corrections officers have been terminated: some for cause, others allegedly on trumped-up claims for having crossed Hill personally or for having applied to transfer to the Clayton County Police Department. The Clayton County Civil Service Board still has cases involving CCSO personnel appeals that the department has dragged its feet on for years.
Allen, who was appointed chief deputy the day Hill was convicted of six federal counts of violating pretrial detainees’ civil rights and was quietly sworn in as interim sheriff minutes before county offices closed for Chirstmas break, recently fired several corrections officers after a pretrial detainee, Terry Lee Thurmond, died in custody. The Clayton County medical examiner ruled Thurmond’s death a homicide. Thurmond, a Hapeville resident whose history of mental illness had not been documented at the jail, had been picked up for allegedly harassing a woman at the airport and pushing a passeger in a wheelchair though airport security.
Many voters in Clayton County have criticized Allen for putting his name (and, in at least one case, his picture) on patrol vehicles at taxpayer expense. Supporters of Allen and former sheriff Victor Hill, who also had put his name on county patrol cars and signage, point to other jurisdictions where sheriffs have wrapped their names and faces on county cruisers. Whether the faces of individual chiefs and sheriffs clinch the deal for prospective recruits is speculative at best. But it’s a sure bet that that name and face recognition goes a long way at the ballot box.
A recruitment campaign focused within the county during an election campaign, whether intentional or not, serves double duty when a candidate’s name and face are prominently featured. The candidate benefits from what is essentially free advertising—free, that is, to the candidate, when taxpayers foot the bill.
At a community forum hosted by National Action Network and New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Forest Park’s Rosetown community Saturday—which Allen did not attend—the other candidates attacked the use of taxpayer dollars for self-promotion.
“If I wanted to put my name on the car, I’d put it on my own,” Terry Evans told a full house at New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Rosetown. “Those cars belong to you. I’m not writing on your stuff. I have to make sure everything’s accounted for, and show respect with what you provide for me and the staff to do what you want done….It’s horrible that we’re wasting funds on such madness.”
Dwayne Fabian, who is retired from Georgia State Patrol, concurred. “I’ve worked for many governors, many colonels, for Commissioner, for the State Patrol. And I haven’t seen a governor’s name on a patrol car, haven’t seen a colonel’s name on a patrol car, most definitely haven’t seen my name on a patrol car…. I’m opposed to putting names on cars for campaign purposes. Money that was used to put on those cars, the name on the cars and the photos, those are taxpayer dollars. I live in this county. Lived in this county nearly 20 years now. And when I see things like this happening, that’s my tax dollars going up. And I don’t want to waste my tax dollars, or someone else’s, going for political [campaigns].”
Chris Storey said, “I feel that’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. We’ve already seen that our property values have been decreased, not to even go along with just the money’s being wasted from putting [Allen’s] name on the car. But we have over half a billion dollars in lawsuits pending against a former convicted sheriff. So why would we waste more money to advertise for a person who is not duly elected? He is an interim sheriff. He has no right to put it on but he’s using his power as the interim sheriff. And he has that liberty. It’s not illegal. But what it is, it’s immoral. Or he lacks integrity.” Storey added that, because the sheriff has discretionary spending, “you’d have to have somebody that’s controlling the budget that has integrity….Oh, also on top of that, not only is he using cars with your money, he’s also buying billboards. I know y’all have seen them all over the place right now. So he said that he’s advertising Nixle.”
Clarence Cox added, “I, too, am upset about that. I’m not only not going to put my long Clarence P. Cox III on there, I’m gonna work with the commission in hopes that. wecan come up with an ordinance that, even when I’m no longer sheriff, that no sheriff can come behind me and put that on, make it illegal for that to happen, because I think that’s more important. Sheriffs are constitutional officers and they get to do a lot of things that don’t have to pass muster with the commissioners, but I think we could come up with an ordinance that prevents that in the future, after I’m no longer your sheriff. I think that’s what we need to do. I won’t be putting names. oncars. I got big buses I ride around here, y’all probably have seen it, with my name and my picture on it. I paid for that. That’s my bus. I own that. I won’t be doing that with taxpayer dollars.”
Audience member Orlando Gooden asked, “At the recent Board of Commissioners meeting, I made a comment, let me know if it was accurate. To change the name on the sheriff’s car, the fleet, is about $300 grand? I totaled it five times. That’s $1.5 million. That comes out of our pockets. Would you be willing, not just—I like what you say about making it a rule so it’s not done. But would you be willing to have oversight on that discretionary spending so we don’t have to worry about a sheriff coming along and spending our money on frivolous things like free advertisement. That’s what it is.”
Cox replied, “Well, to your point. And that’s why I’m so upset. My colleagues are as well. We are coming out of our pockets, spending our hard-earned money money, taking loans and everything we can here to sustain these campaigns. And it’s very unfair. And I’m not gonna—you know, I’m not crying because, you know, committed to run for this office. But we’re committed to you as citizens of this county, I’ve invested whatever I had to spend to be your next sheriff, and I’m standing here before you, and I’ll be here every time you call me. I won’t be the empty chair. So, yes sir. We will certainly do that.”
The candidates questioned how CCSO paid for the cars underneath the custom wraps and alleged that the department may have overspent federal asset forfeiture funds from drug seizures.
“Right now, that account is negative $45,000,” Storey said. Because there’s irregular spending from the previous administration. So again, it’s a negative 25,000 in that account. So in that account, normally holds millions. And it’s also an interest-bearing account. So for them to be negative $45,000 is because they have somebody that was operating that budget that didn’t know what he was doing. Because as an administrator over the budget for a time, I had to sign off on all the POs. We had a system that’s called MUNIS. So because it’s line items, so everything every purchase that was made had to come through me for final approval to be purchased. So we don’t need credit checks, right? If I go by Capital, I’m going to buy vehicles, and I go to Landmark Dodge and say I need 25 Chargers, they don’t run a credit check. They know we’re good for the money. We’re a government entity. Somebody signed up on a PO that they couldn’t cover because they wasn’t doing the money right.”
Fabian added, “Asset forfeiture is federal money, and it’s supposed to be used for specific reasons, not just to be able to put names on cars and go out and buy billboards, so forth and so on. It is strictly monitored, and whoever signed off on that money to where there’s a negative balance could be in deep trouble. Not only on state level, but on the federal level, as well. Because the federal government gets part of that money, as well. They get 10%, if they hadn’t changed over the years. And purchasing cards. I come from an agency where we had P-cards. Holding checks and balances monthly. When the command staff from headquarters would come out and see exactly what we did at my office and how we spent that money, if we could not account for that money for their P-card, somebody was going to be out of termination. And so, when I did that, of course, I balanced, but I can see I was able to retire. So as the leader of the sheriff’s department, I will make sure that any purchases are done within order, within the laws, and especially federal government money, because I’m not going to jail for nobody on spending somebody else’s money.”
Terry Evans said he had a good idea of how much money was supposed to be in the account.
“I wish I had time to tell you how that money is accumulated. That money is accumulated with deputies that we assign to different agencies, and we get a percentage, and the federal government writes checks. The federal government writes checks. There’s people in charge, who’ve got badge and guns and think they got all the power, till the FBI comes knocking at your door. Right? Y’all heard me, that’s been to some of the forums, I’m gonna say it to the people that haven’t. I ain’t going to jail for nobody. At the end of the day, that money belongs to doing the right thing. You use that money properly, nobody’s gonna make a big deal about it. Putting your name on cars? I’m telling you, some of that money was used for that. And I know, because I was over the vice unit. When I was over the vice unit had accumulated like five million bucks in that account, because we were shutting down those illegal stores that was using gambling machines, and we were able to obtain homes and cars, and all that stuff would add up with just one or two cases. And I’m telling you, once the feds write the check, you’d better know what you’re doing. There’s people that take federal loans with this [PPP] money, and they’re finding out the hard way about that. So when the FBI comes, you in big trouble, okay? So I’m not gonna be that guy….we’re going to use that money for what it’s used for and what it’s designed to be used for. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Accountable to the penny.”
Cox alleged that the county had failed in monitoring how CCSO has used state asset forfeiture funds, as well.
“So I’ve heard the emphasis on the federal money, but asset forfeiture, and I know this because I was the drug task force commander, comes from both the state and the feds. So I’m not just concerned with the federal money, I’m concerned with all of the money. That money is audited every year by Brian Boykin at the DOJ for the fed side. And then for the for the asset forfeiture on the state side, it should be done by an independent auditor here in Clayton County and the commissioners. Apparently, from what I can gather in the state that we’re in right now. And those are reflected to the amounts that we have lost, the county auditors have not done what they should have done on the county side of the money, because again, we have county funds that come from state forfeitures, and then we have federal funds that come from the U.S. Department of Justice. Those Justice funds are regularly, like I just said, audited by Brian Boykin and his staff. And apparently, they haven’t done an audit recently to find out what my guys here are alleging. I don’t know this stuff intimately of what’s going on with those funds. But I can assure you that we will follow it by the letter of the law. And it will be used for the [correct] purposes. Because they’ve got a purpose code that tells you exactly what these things can be used for. And a lot of the uses that I’m hearing is not applicable to what the codes are.”
The Clayton Crescent filed an Open Records Request on February 8, seeking to find out how much CCSO has spent on adding Allen’s name and likeness to county vehicles at taxpayer expense. CCSO replied that it was backed up with Open Records Requests and that it would be three to four weeks before they could produce any invoices, accounts payable records, payees, and records of payments for the decals.
The Clayton Crescent also requested “all invoices, accounts payable records, payees, and records of payments for recruitment or other CCSO advertising on digital or other billboards between October 1, 2022 and February 8, 2023.” That part of the request CCSO did fulfill on February 22, two weeks after the ORR was filed. Here’s what they provided:
Billboard purchase timeline
According to these records, Clayton County taxpayers footed the bill for billboards as follows:
- November 8, 2022: $10,430 for digital full-panel banners (contracted for 112,259 impressions or individual viewings) and a recruitment campaign onscreen at Southlake Pavilion 24, to run from November 21, 2022 through February 26, 2023.
- January 26, 2023: $16,392.50 four four recruiting billboards, paid to the Lamar Company for four vinyl billboards and six digital billboard “panels” to run from January 30 through February 26. Lamar sent the January 26 invoice to the attention of Ashlee Rainey at CCSO.
- February 6, 2023: $3,315 for four more panels from Lamar, to run between February 6 and March 5.
That’s a grand total of $30,137.50 spent on recruitment advertising between November 21, 2022 and press time—not counting the new car decals and vehicle wraps—more than $10,000 per month to attract potential CCSO recruits while Allen is running for election.
Billboard impressions alone were calculated at over 2,168,581 views in a county where the last election saw 178,028 registered voters in the November 14, 2022 election.
On February 8, CCSO said it was “experiencing a voluminous amount of request[s] at this time. We are looking at 3 to 4 weeks to satisfy request[s] as they come in”:
On Tuesday, February 26, CCSO had not yet provided public documents showing what it cost taxpayers to add Allen’s name and likeness to county vehicles, saying that documentation of CCSO’s purchase or purchases “hasn’t been received by the vendor yet:”
Whether a purchase order has not yet been sent to or received by a vendor that provided thousands of dollars worth of custom logos to the county sometime within the past 90-plus days, and whether that vendor has not sought payment for the goods and services delivered, seems doubtful at best:
As of Sunday, February 26, CCSO has yet to provide those public records.
Often, law enforcement agencies place recruitment billboards in areas outside their jurisdiction, trying to attract officers from other agencies with lower pay or from a few counties down the interstate. They also conduct in-person recruiting events, which are more time-intensive but much less expensive and have the added power of personal face-to-face interaction.
CCSO has a history of unusual hiring practices:
- After shooting his girlfriend Gwenevere McCord while allegedly showing her “SWAT tactics” in a model home, Hill hired McCord at CCSO. Hill later suspended her for five days for “unprofessional conduct” after McCord allegedly gave a lap dance to a deputy at the jail. The person who reported the incident, Sharon Cunningham, was fired. Hill accused her of spreading gossip, making false writtn allegations, and lying while under investigation.
- When Mitzi Bickers was forced to resign from Atlanta City Hall for failing to disclose her lucrative political campaign advisor income, Hill found her a gig as a corrections officer. Through a few quick promotions and title creations, elevated her to chief of staff before she was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for her role in the Atlanta City Hall multi-million-dollar contract-rigging scheme.
- While Hill was suspended as sheriff, several sources told The Clayton Crescent that Hill allegedly would “put something in their jacket,” a black mark preventing deputies from making lateral moves to other agencies, particularly to the Clayton County Police Department. Reviews on the job search website Indeed call the culture “toxic.”
- Although Hill himself is a few weeks from his sentencing hearing on federal charges he abused pretrial detainees in the Clayton County Jail, he is focusing his efforts on stumping for Allen, his protege. Allen was hired shortly after he pleaded to lesser charges in a domestic violence incident, which allowed him to keep his POST certification; POST had recommended his certification be revoked. Allen came to Clayton County after racking up several infractions at Dekalb County Sheriff’s Office.
Allen has avoided public forums where he might have to respond to critics, instead relying on tightly-controlled appearances at senior centers, the Hill social media machine, high-end direct-mail pieces likening him and Hill to Biblical figures, and especially on Hill’s own deep-throated endorsement. Following in Hill’s footsteps, Allen has not returned The Clayton Crescent’s e-mails, texts, or calls since declaring his candidacy—nor those of other news media outlets seeking routine information—and CCSO has delayed some Open Records Requests, claiming a backlog that coincides roughly with the campaign for the March 21 election.
We’ve asked Allen for his perspective on why he chose to spend taxpayer funds on increasing his name recognition during an election campaign and will update with his response.
We’ve also posed the question to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission and will update when we hear back.